The more observant of our readers may have noticed on their way to Paíz supermarket an enormous hole in the ground in the adjacent block with some scaffolding, pillars and a huge crane sticking out of it. The even more perceptive readers may have noticed that this hole in the ground was, until recently, teeming with workers toiling away with surprising efficiency (given we?re in Guatemala) to build the structure within a few metres taller every couple of days.
The construction within is being posited as one of Xela’s most ambitious and modern infrastructure projects to date. If all goes to plan (and that?s a big “if”), what is a now hole in the ground will be transformed into Utz Ulew, a behemoth of a shopping mall that will easily rival La Pradera (the mall where Walmart is located) for being the sparkliest, most vacuous place in all of Xela.
The mall will have three floors which will host an array of high-end stores, many setting up shop in Xela for the first time; four basement levels with enough space to park 700 cars; and a 12-floor tower hotel with 90 rooms, which would make it the tallest building in the region. Best of all, Utz Ulew will host a Cinépolis, which means that we will get a cinema in the centre of town that will hopefully have a little more variety than Alba Cinema in La Pradera, where the closest you’ll get to watching a genuinely decent movie is during the trailers for other films that they?re not showing.
Utz Ulew was scheduled to be completed in January 2017. But, like so many projects in Guatemala, things didn’t quite go to plan: last month the Ministerio Publico (Attorney General?s office) put construction on hold until further notice due to, yup you guessed it, corruption allegations (or “anomalies” as they put it). First, an ex-municipal councilman and his brother were arrested on charges of influence peddling to approve the construction license, which was approved without an environmental impact study and with a discount of around half a million quetzales less than it should have cost. According to Prensa Libre, the ex-councilman?s brother went so far as to change his name so that he could appear on the license as the project?s lead planner and manager, therefore being able to benefit financially from it and in the process proving that nepotism truly is alive and well here in Xela.
A few days later, Xela business mogul Celso Macario Gómez, one of the project?s directors, was also arrested and accused of using his influence to get the license approved on these terms, according to Stero100. Goméz is one of the most interesting characters of Xela’s business community. Coming from a poor background and with only an education up to 6th grade, many years ago he started a small wholesale business in La Democracia. He grew the business to become the biggest in Xela, using his growing influence to buy out the competition. When imitators tried to copy his successful business model, he was known for ruthlessly lowering his prices until they went bankrupt. He is now the biggest wholesaler in town for practically all of the brands you see in all of the tiendas on every street corner: crisps, sodas, chocolates, you name it. Unfortunately, if the accusations are true, it looks like the old adage that “power corrupts” holds true in this case.
It’s hard to know who to get pissed at over this scandal. On the one hand, with so much government bureaucracy surrounding construction projects in Guatemala, one can hardly blame businessmen for resorting to greasing the hands of some greedy politicians in order to expedite their projects, rather than waiting years for them to be approved through the normal channels. On the other hand, cheating a municipal government that can’t even find the funds to fix its dysfunctional drainage system out of half a million quetzales is clearly unacceptable. At the end of the day though, as always, it?s the ordinary folk that suffer the most: over 300 people are now unemployed until further notice and for the time being the population of Xela will have another “monument to corruption” to look upon every time they go to Paíz to do their grocery shopping.